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I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers

Bette Midler devours John Logan's dishy play about Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. logo
Bette Midler in I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers
(© Richard Termine)
There's a lot less eating on the stage of the Booth Theatre by the voracious Hollywood agent Sue Mengers than one might expect in Tony Award winner John Logan's delicious new bioplay, I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. Instead, it's the audience who is eating — right out of Bette Midler's hands before she even opens her mouth. After all, since the Divine Miss M hasn't actually been on Broadway in over three decades, it hardly matters that she's portraying a woman only a fraction of the audience even knew existed.

The show is set in 1981, 30 years before Mengers' death. The glamorous hostess deigns to entertain us just hours before one of her star-filled dinner parties, as she awaits a call from best pal, Barbra Streisand, who has ended their long professional relationship that day via lawyer. Perched for 85 minutes on a sofa in the midst of Scott Pask's exquisitely detailed living room set, and decked out in a blue caftan (provided by Ann Roth), a long blond wig, oversized sunglasses, and to-die-for fingernails reminiscent of Streisand's, Midler looks like an amalgam of her subject and herself.

Under Joe Mantello's almost invisible direction, the actress mostly sounds like herself as she deftly captures Mengers' vicious tongue, razor-sharp wit, and periodic forays into self-pity. Maybe that's why we laugh so hard at everything she says, especially the barbs that are notable for their desire to shock. (Also hilarious is her use of unadulterated profanity — which was a large part of Mengers' vocabulary.) It could also be why we sit in rapt attention hearing about her childhood in Utica as the daughter of German-Jewish émigrés, the aftermath of her father's suicide, and her rise from secretary to superagent in a time when women weren't allowed to touch Hollywood's glass ceiling, never mind break through it.

But Logan knows we're less interested in Mengers' backstory than the name-dropping and the dirt. And he serves us both in abundance. Some of the stories, such as how Mengers bullied William Friedkin into auditioning Gene Hackman for The French Connection or of the lie she told to convince Robert Evans to cast Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, are only modestly interesting (especially to those already familiar with Mengers' career). Others, like that of a rude dinner party remark to Vanessa Redgrave, or the tale about visiting Sissy Spacek's farm in Virginia, are more likely to elicit loud chortles. And there's a real poignancy in the section about how Mengers finally gave up trying to convince dear friend Ali MacGraw to return to the movies after marrying Steve McQueen — for whom Mengers saves the meanest remarks from her repertoire. (So much for not speaking ill of the dead.)

Surprisingly, the show barely touches on Mengers' marriage to Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont (although this topic does yield my favorite line: "On a good night, we're Nick and Nora Charles; on a bad night, we're Nick and Nora Charles Manson"). And given that Mengers was "in the Barbra Streisand business," one anticipates hearing more about the megastar than a reminder that she has always been a perfectionist, a zinger about an unfortunate perm, or a mildly nasty swipe about her lifelong desire to make Yentl.

So what if I'll Eat You Last leaves you hungry for more? When the server is as irresistible as Bette Midler, you're willing to make a meal out of dessert.